Bangkok to Saigon Cycle Challenge 2003

The Temples of Angkor Wat at Siem Riep

The temple ruins of Angkor Wat were clearly a high point of the trip. Angkor Wat is actually just one of many temples in the area to the North of Siem Riep, although it is the biggest and most spectacular. Many temples are still hidden away in the jungle.

From our base in Siem Riep we visit the temple area by car and accompanied by our guide. First stop is Angkor Thom, which was built as the capital of the Khmer empire, which dominated SE Asia at the time (~12th century). The city had an incredible one million inhabitants living inside the 3x3 km2 city wall, this must have been the most populous city in the world by a fair margin.

The city is entered through gates, which are flanked with massive head sculptures. The central temple, Bayon, has extremely well preserved bas-relief on the walls on ground to first floor levels, as well as a huge number of face-sculptures peering down from the many towers.

reggie/3641.jpg When we visit the most famous of all the temples, Angkor Wat (Wat = temple), we were astounded by the sheer size of the structure. gernot/0341.jpg We climbed up to (almost) the top along the outside building blocks, very similar to a pyramid. The full hight and steepness was simply awesome particularly as we started our descent :-)

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and two sets of walls, with smaller buildings, including several libraries, in between. Some are visible in the picture on the right, taken at dusk.

We didn't take too many pictures of temples, as we wouldn't have done them justice anyway. Instead we bought a nice book with beautiful photographs as well as explanatory text including a lot of history by a Japanese author. The price of U$10.- (a fraction of what was printed on the back cover) made the little girl selling it very happy, she ran off jumping in the air and couldn't believe her luck. We understood why when we were offered the same book at a different corner of the temple area for half of what we had paid...

Speaking of peddlers: whenever we leave the car we are immediately assaulted by hordes of kids selling postcards, T-shirts, musical instruments, and all sort of junk, often quite aggressively. However, they fall behind as soon as we enter the site proper -- tourist police seems to run a tight ship.

reggie/3638.jpgThe most delicate and extraordinarily well preserved carvings are seen in one of the smaller temples, Banteay Srei, a bit away from the Angkor site. While attempts are made to salvage and maintain as many of the building structures from further decay and overgrowth from the jungle forest around this area, Ta Prohm is a temple structure that is deliberately left to the natural forces, showing us visitors to what extent flora takes over man-made construction -- producing an almost seamless blend.

Near the temples there are lots of places to eat, not much different from the many little eating places along the roads in Cambodia. There is also a French-run, upmarket restaurant with excellent food and impeccable service. It is part of a strategy to build up local hospitality know-how, similar to the French-run College of Tourism&Hospitality we have seen on the way into Siem Riep.

gernot/0311.jpg Generally, the French presence is much felt through several archaeological projects, but also through sponsorships of the likes of the School for Silk Manufacturing or the School for Stone Carving&Handicraft. (We had passed a stone carving workshop on the road from Sisophon.) In terms of archaeological projects, just about every major country has a site sponsored, including Japan and China. Interestingly, the US engagement seems to be about the size of Switzerland's. In the light of the destruction by US bombs during the Vietnam war, one might have expected a bit more.

The area is a general centre of international aid agencies. Other evidence beyond above-mentioned French schools are: a UNESCO-sponsored children's hospital, stores selling handicraft made by disabled people and several massage places completely operated by blind people (Thai-style massage -- we went each day!)

We are greatly impressed by the Silk School, a project that was originally sponsored by the French, then supported by the European Union and is now self-reliant. Each year, they take over a hundred poorly educated, young people from some nearby village and train them in the complete process of silk manufacturing, from husbanding mulberry trees and hatching silk worms to making the silk threads, de-gumming, dying, weaving, maintaining the equipment -- the lot. After a year, they send the group back to their village, armed with some basic raw material and low-tech equipment, and let them start their full production line in that one village. Then, the school takes the next group from another village. There is a nice shop which is an important source of the school's income. They sell beautiful silk products (at prices that must seem astronomical for the locals but are in fact a fraction of what you would pay in the West).

gernot/0338.jpgSiem Riep is a provincial capital, but it is immediately evident that it is the tourism capital of Cambodia. On the way into town we ride past hotel after hotel, some obviously very posh, others more of the backpacker style including the one we are staying. Our little "bed&breakfast" hotel has no restaurant attached, where they could serve a breakfast. Instead, we are taken by one of the ubiquitous motorbikes to a nearby restaurant (which would have only been a 5 mins walk) and back, both of us on the double passenger seat, of course. For the ride back our driver is an elegantly dressed lady -- in Gernot's eyes the most elegant taxi driver he has seen to date!

During breakfast, we observe a Buddhist monk show up at the entrance, waiting patiently until one of the staff appears, takes her shoes off, kneels in front of him and hands over some gift; then she receives a blessing. Later, she also puts a plate with food and drink in front of the house altar and burns some incense.

gernot/0343.jpgMost restaurants are clearly only catering for tourists. This includes the one where we are taken to on our last night in Siem Riep. After a superb buffet of Asian delicacies there is a traditional dance performance to live music. Actually quite good, Gernot reckons the best value tourist trap he has seen in a long time.

An overall impression of Siem Reap is that the town is crawling with (comparatively) rich Western tourists, who seem to consider the locals mostly a nuisance, and local beggars and peddlers, who seem to see the tourists as walking dollar signs. We go for a drink around the corner of our hotel and find that it is full of hookers. Any single white male entering is approached within seconds by one of the girls. Together with all the children peddling cheap tourist items, and the very aggressive begging, it is quite off-putting. While the temple ruins were a high point, the town of Siem Riep was the lowpoint of the trip.

Trudy & Gernot

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